Netflix Lost Subscribers, But It Really Lost Something Larger — Call It Mythology (Column)

·8-min read

Pretend it was one year ago, when the streaming revolution, stoked by the pandemic (when is a pandemic good for business? When your business depends on people staying home), was feeling the first flush of being the New Paradigm That Ate The World. And pretend, in that spring of 2021, that you’d been asked to imagine how a film industry headline from the future might read. You would probably have predicted something like this: “For the First Time, Every Oscar Nominee Comes From a Streaming Service.” Or maybe this: “Movie Theaters: Still Here But No Longer Driving the Action.”

You probably would not have come up with something like this: “Netflix Buys Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Bardo,’ Plans Global Theatrical Release.”

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But that’s the headline that ran on April 27 in Variety. Netflix has bestowed token theatrical runs before — to “The Irishman,” “Roma,” and “The Power of the Dog.” But not with a six-month-before-the-fact headline trumpeting a global theatrical release. Sorry, but that is not on-brand for Netflix.

That particular headline was not about the shocking attrition of Netflix’s subscriber base — the fact that the company lost 200,000 subscribers in Q1, and expects to lose another 2 million in Q2. Yet those stats, reported the week before, were, in effect, the deep background for the news about Netflix’s commitment to giving “Bardo” a full-scale theatrical release. Both headlines were broadcasting different aspects of the same thing: that there are now powerful countervailing forces to the streaming revolution.

Why did the loss of Netflix subscribers happen? A perfect storm of reasons, led by the war in Ukraine (Netflix cut services in Russia), but also driven by the fundamental fact that Netflix now exists in the hyper-competitive world it created — i.e., the rise of streamers like Disney+, Apple TV+ and HBO Max. (There is also the reality of password sharing, but that sounds, in the scheme of things, like a rather desperate rationalization.) The reasons matter, but the upshot is that as Netflix was navigating what is arguably the worst crisis in its 25-year history, the image of Netflix as the unstoppable locomotive of the new age of the entertainment industry took a major hit. And if those headlines provided the words, then last week’s CinemaCon, the annual gathering of the motion-picture theater industry, added the music, all of it coming together in a hit single that went like this: “Movie Theaters Are Back, Baby!”

Not that they’d ever gone away. But the fading of movie theaters — the decay of the theater experience and, yes, the potential death of movie theaters — has, over the last two years, become the most threatening specter haunting the motion-picture business since the rise of television in the early 1950s. At moments, it has struck terror in the hearts of just about everyone who loves this industry. And that’s because it’s all about the unknown.

But it is also, of course, about what everybody knows, at least in their moviegoing reptile brain, which is that people sitting at home watching a “first-run movie” on television is, quite simply, a bad business plan, since it’s a plan based on downgrading the fundamental magic of the product itself: making it less exciting, less essential, less mythological. For movies, make no mistake, are all about mythology. (Just ask George Lucas, Frank Capra or the creators of “The Batman.”)

And so, as it happens, is Netflix.

When it comes to the question of what, exactly, movies are going to look like (not just this year but five years from now, 10 years from now, 30 years from now), Netflix and the movie industry as we’ve known it have been engaged in a war of mythology. In the real world, movies theaters and streaming services can, and will, co-exist. But how? That will ultimately be decided by the viewers. And the news, over the last two weeks, that Netflix is mortal — not a god, not an invincible monolith, but a company like any other — could wind up having a powerful impact on viewers’ perceptions of the entertainment world they want to live in.

The most famous quote about the movie business — William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” — doesn’t mean that everybody is stupid. It means that, as Goldman noted, “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” What people know keeps changing; the way to make today’s hit isn’t necessarily the way to make tomorrow’s hit. That’s the nature of the business. And that kind of shifting dynamic is happening right now in the gladiatorial contest that is streaming vs. theatrical.

At CinemaCon, the film industry declared its robust commitment to providing theaters with a full slate of movies (not just tentpoles, but dramas for adult audiences), and in doing so they flipped the current conventional wisdom. But that was the right call. As the pandemic does its slow but sure fadeout, there is potent evidence to back up the notion that movie audiences want more than IP extravaganzas. Just look at the astonishing success, exclusively in theaters, of a film as radical as “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It may be true, at CinemaCon, that the death of day-and-date was greatly exaggerated, but there’s no denying that day-and-date has taken an extreme hit. Opening a movie on a streaming service the same day that it opens in a theater is — isn’t it obvious? — a way of devaluing that movie. And if that’s true, then everyone loses.

But what Netflix has been selling, and mythologizing, is that a movie seen at home has as much value as a movie seen in a theater. It’s just a different kind of value, one we all have to get used to. Netflix succeeded in defining the streaming revolution through the yardstick of its own preeminence. And the pandemic allowed us to give that model the ultimate road test of new normality. “Netflix and chill” morphed into “Stay at home… and why leave? Ever?” Many bought into that fantasy of what life would now be like.

It was a mode of thinking encouraged by Netflix, which took a very real technological innovation, one that is not going way, and inflated it into a kind of fairy tale. The mythology of motion pictures begins with the fact that they’re bigger than you. You literally look up to see them; you sit in a crowd to experience them; at their greatest, movies dance around in your head to the point of rewiring your brain. (That’s what great art does.) But what Netflix did, by brilliantly marketing itself as The Only Streaming Service You Will Ever Need, was to replace the sheer bigness of movies with the sheer bigness of Netflix.

The mythology said: Here, in your own home, is the only megaplex that you will ever need — the Netflix smorgasbord. And since the vaunted Netflix business model was literally intended to rewire the entire world, signing up every consumer on Earth as a subscriber, once you became part of the Netflix family of entertainment couch potatoes, you would now be seeing what everyone else was seeing, which is part of the dream of what movies are. Streaming would replace theatrical because Netflix would be replacing movies. And even as the Netflix competitors came rolling in (Disney+, Hulu, Apple TV+), that didn’t change the paradigm of how we were thinking about streaming, a larger-than-life model Netflix planted on the map and owned.

But when Netflix had its bad Q1, losing subscribers and also, for the first time, falling below 50 percent of market share for the streaming world, the largeness of their mythology was revealed to be a kind of man-behind-the-curtain fantasy. No, it turned out, their famous smorgasbord of choices, dominated by a high percentage of mediocre product, was not going to take over the world. Netflix was not going to be replacing movies. There were, of course, other services, other choices. But more than that, the choice of staying home to watch a movie was not going to feel so goddamn dictated. As the Pivotal Research Group analyst Jeff Wlodarczak noted, “Streaming appears nearly fully penetrated globally post-COVID.” That sounds like a statement of success, but it actually represents a profound undercutting of the Netflix myth. Fully penetrated! No more room for growth.

Streaming, in other words, is here to stay, but it’s not necessarily going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. It has altered the world of entertainment, and will continue to do so, but that world is subject to other dynamics, including the re-embrace of movie theaters, which is driven by something every bit as primal and eternal as our desire to watch movies in the comfort of our own home. Namely: our desire to get out of the house. Netflix’s bad Q1 did more than just bring its share price down. It blew a hole in the company’s mythology. And that’s good for movie theaters, which are the rightful home for the thing we call movies, which require their own mythology to survive.

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